Musical mayhem: The Klezmatics are coming

The world’s most popular klezmer band will bring its funky rhythms to Israel next month.

Klezmatics 370 (photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Klezmatics 370
(photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
You have to be pretty confident in your history and sense of self to release an album called Jews With Horns. And one listen to The Klezmatics’ genre-smashing, progressive klezmer/shtetl sounds reveals a whole lot of proud Jewish identity expressed through a vibrant musical landscape. These Jews with horns – and accordions, keyboards, violins and attitude – can really rock a house, as that mid-’90s album or any other music they’ve recorded or played live over the last 25 years will attest.
Much in the same way that groups like The Pogues manhandled traditional Irish music and exposed its raw, punky roots, The Klezmatics have largely been responsible for moving klezmer music out of the ghetto and into the gutter. By dragging the traditional music of Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe out of the mothballs of history and into the dynamic mashup of the present, the veteran New York-based band has championed klezmer as a living, breathing creature, not a museum piece.
“The way klezmer was originally played, there was nothing nostalgic about it,” said Frank London, the band’s multi-instrumentalist, who along with Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals) founded The Klezmatics in 1986. “It was music coming from another world that didn’t exist anymore, and when it was revived in the US in the 20th century, there was a big sense of nostalgia about it. One of the first things we did was to get rid of all the nostalgic elements, and going back to the roots of the music which enabled us to appreciate it on its own terms.
Along the way, they’ve led the modern-day klezmer revival and attracted hordes of fans – some who arrive from the Jewish heritage appreciation angle and others who find similarities between The Klezmatics brand of musical mayhem and that of en vogue gypsy/Balkan dance music outfits like Balkan Beat Box or Gogol Bordello. They’ll all converge when the band returns to Israel next month for three shows, August 28 at Zappa Tel Aviv, August 29 at Zappa Herzliya and August 30 at Zappa Jerusalem.
London, who was speaking from his New York home last week, said that the band’s ability to think out of the klezmer box and widen its appeal is based first and foremost on a rock solid knowledge and love of the traditional klezmer sounds.
“With The Klezmatics, we’ve been better able to mix our music with non-Jewish elements and different sources, because we’re actually so based in the traditional klezmer environment,” said London. “Once you know yourself and you’re at home, the more you can feel free to travel to other places and still keep your identity. That way, you don’t end up getting lost in a morass of musical vagueness.”
The feeling was anything but vague when the Jewish London was first exposed to klezmer as as student in 1980 at the New England Conservatory, where he focused on Afro-American music. An invitation to be part of an NEC Jewish music concert led to the formation of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, where London honed his skills for seven years.
“I was very blown away by klezmer’s funky rhythms, the polyphony, the wild old-world, old-school ornamentation, the particular way it expressed its Jewishness and how the instrumental music was not at all kitschy or corny the way most Jewish music I had heard up to that point was,” he told The Klezmatics’ official biographer.
Enchanted with the music, London answered an ad in New York’s Village Voice in 1985 searching for klezmer musicians. He went for an audition, bringing with him a Balkan accordionist he knew named Lorin Sklamberg. When the dust cleared, they became the anchor of the fledgling band, and not the person who placed the ad. Initially calling themselves Hortzeplotz, they soon renamed themselves The Klezmatics, a play on words inspired by the ’80s shock punk rock band The Plasmatics. The core trio is filled out with longtime members Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals) and Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals).
Over the course of a dozen albums and numerous multinational tours, including past visits to Israel, The Klezmatics have earned the title of the world’s most popular klezmer band. And on their Grammywinning 2006 album Wonder Wheel, they branched out by setting a dozen previously unsung Woody Guthrie lyrics to music.
They’ve also been the subject of a feature-length documentary film, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, and have collaborated with artists as diverse as violinist Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Israeli vocal icon Chava Alberstein.
London, who has frequently visited Israel for musical projects like opening Beit Avi Chai’s first Jewish Music Days festival in 2007 with his AndraLaMoussia side project, and collaborations with oudist and violinist Yair Dallal and brass band Marsh Domdura, found that the modern klezmer revolution was slow to emerge here, but that young Israelis are now embracing their ethnic roots.
“From the time we started in the mid- 1980s, there has been such a resurgence of interest in this music in the US, and in Israel, whose people originated it, you would never even hear klezmer. It’s interesting how over the years, the Israeli acceptance of Yiddish culture and music has become more attractive,” said London, adding that the process has coincided with and even been boosted by the boom of similarly styled regional music.
“Look at Balkan Beat Box, who are friends of mine. They started doing Balkan music, and got selected to perform at Jewish music festivals not because the music was Jewish per se, but because the people making it were Israeli – so it’s under a Jewish umbrella by this weird definition.
“There are similarities between klezmer and Balkan music, especially the way a number of those bands use the same kind of techniques of taking traditional music and stretching them in the way that we and other klezmer bands have been doing. At the risk of sounding polyannish, it’s all good, it makes the scene richer.”
One unexpected offshoot of the resurgence of klezmer thanks to The Klezmatics is the phenomenon of young American Jews connecting to their heritage through the music. Instead of being embarrassed by the Yiddish shtetl era and trying to wipe out the past through assimilation, modern klezmer is hip and ethnic in a society where ethnic is now considered cool. But London doesn’t see the band’s music as a pied piper to bring Jews back to their roots.
“That certainly wasn’t our goal, but I’m sure for some people who hear our music, it leads them to rediscovering a part of their own Jewish identity,” he said. “Many people are affected by us in musical terms, not religious ones. By engaging in Jewish music like klezmer, it bringing people in contact with Jewish culture and Jewish identity. But where that leads them is a personal choice.”
Appreciating The Klezmatics on strictly personal terms is easy to do, and one way the band has succeeded in remaining fresh and vital over 25 years is by adding elements of the unknown into each performance.
London likened it to the approach of The Grateful Dead, who performed set songs but always spread out with jamming and improvisation.
“Our show is never the same night to night – we build it into the way we make our arrangements and our set lists – it keeps up fresh, honest and in the moment. With The Dead, they were expected to do something unexpected, and when you start with that philosophy it helps,” he said.
The band’s shows in Israel – the first of which took place at the Safed Klezmer Festival 20 years ago, are always different in content and spirit, London added.
“Each concert sort of presents its own spirituality – the goal of The Klezmatics, and of any artist, is to be as authentically connected to the moment as possible, so to come with a certain presupposition about something or how we’re going to feel is sort of antithetical to that philosophy. In Israel, we’re surrounded by history and culture, but we’re playing in clubs that are probably similar to rock and jazz clubs in New York or anywhere else. But what makes the show special is being in the moment, talking to the people letting the experience happen.”
Whether you’re there for the music, the Jewish content, or just to dance, the Klezmatics’ shows next month will undoubtedly be an experience.